Spirituality and Ethical Culture by Jone Johnson Lewis

Humanist Spirituality: Does the concept of spirituality have any relevance to contemporary Ethical Culture, and if so, how?

For some, the definition of “spirituality” is about the supernatural. This is not, however, a universal definition. Words often have more than one meaning or connotation. For many others, the term denotes a natural quality of experience or of the inner life: a depth, a sense of getting to something central, essential, or even just deeply satisfying.

The word “spirit” is a metaphor. It comes from a word for breath. Just as “heart” and “mind” are not really “things” but are instead handy terms for very complicated categories of experience. In the same way, “spirit” or “spirituality” can refer to a category of experience.

Most of us understand what we mean by “the human spirit” without needing a supernatural referent. What is it that “brings us to life”? What moves our experience from just existing to really living? What moves our relationships from seeing others as objects to be used or ignored, into more deep connection of authentic self to authentic self?

Felix Adler and the first generations in Ethical Culture used the words “spiritual” or “spirituality.” Often, it was to contrast with merely material concerns. In one attempt to define it, Adler calls spirituality a “consciousness of infinite interrelatedness.”

For many naturalistic humanists, spirituality has been our term of choice to express a deep sense of connection—to the universe, to others. A confidence that we are not alone. We are part of something larger than ourselves.

Whether we use the term “spirituality” or not, a depth of living and connection is important to living the ethical life. What I call “Ethical Culture spirituality” is about what enhances the “human spirit,” in ourselves and in others.

In about 1990, Reuben Snake, an activist Native American of the Winnebago tribe, in a workshop described four approaches to spirituality. I think these are useful categories for humanists to think about, too.

The first level, he said, is manipulating others, exploiting the forms of spirituality for personal gain. Some strip-mine the Southwest to sell crystals as answers to every human problem. Some TV preachers fund their luxuries by promising salvation in exchange for donations.

The second level is a consumerism: buying forms of spirituality as a quick fix. It is this that makes the first level possible. Buy crystals, send donations, get fixed, and get saved. This kind of spirituality brings only short-term relief, and often decreases the likelihood that the person will address their very real problems.

The third level is more complicated. Here, people look to self-improvement, and commit to self-discipline and transformation. The Transcendentalist movement sought a kind of transcendence through what they called “self-culture.” Know you have worth. See yourself as a child of the Universe. This philosophy, practice, and experience nurture people who are hurting at an existential or even material level. We are all there, part of the time. People who experience this spirituality often report a sense of deep healing. Inner force and energy are enhanced and transformed. As a humanist, I find this is often necessary work to enhance the human spirit—but I don’t find it sufficient.

The fourth level Reuben Snake described builds on personal enhancement, extending it beyond our more narrow self. We understand, practice, and experience the connection of each to the larger whole: humanity, the world, and the universe. Service and social activism are ways to enhance and heal the human spirit. Many Transcendentalists became social reformers, seeking self-expansion for others, not just themselves. This is the spirituality that Felix Adler taught, moving beyond self-culture to ethical culture. We cultivate relationships where others are real selves and part of a network of interconnected relationships, not mere objects to be used. We understand that we all are more when all are more.

I once proposed that a humanist spirituality would have these elements. For the purpose of this article, I will keep the descriptions brief.

  1. Ethical humanist spirituality celebrates life and our human potential for goodness and enjoyment. Humanists recognize that life is not a dress rehearsal or a test. This life is all we know, and it is enough.
  2. Ethical humanist spirituality accepts death, our potential for causing harm to others, and other limitations, including limits to logic and knowledge. Because of this acceptance, we take responsibility for our actions, and acknowledge that our actions can make it easier or harder for ourselves and others to be their best, to experience and act on their goodness, to enjoy life.
  3. Ethical humanist spirituality values individuality, both our own and that of others. We are individuals in relationships, and there are tensions between individuality and relatedness. Neither condition is primary. Humanist spirituality is one of interdependence.
  4. Ethical humanist spirituality is rooted in nature. We are star-stuff, and our future is bound with the future of the whole—of humanity, our world, and the universe.
  5. Ethical humanist spirituality also retains a kind of skepticism, testing our assumptions against personal and common experience. We reject proposed spirituality tools which take away our capacity for checking them out.
  6. Ethical humanist spirituality recognizes that we are not just thinkers, we are also feelers. The logical, the aesthetic, and the emotional are all crucial to the human spirit.
  7. An ethical humanist spirituality is experimental and active. The human spirit is more likely to be nourished by our actions when actions are motivated out of the sense of interconnection and are informed by our analytical, emotional, aesthetic, even skeptical capacities. We continue to reflect on and test our actions against our commitment to life, goodness, individuality, and the worth of every self.


As humanists, we need to be humans at our best. We need to tap into an energy that motivates our lives and ideas and actions. The human spirit is worthy of nourishment and care. It is that spirituality that remains, by whatever name, essential to Ethical Culture.